Selling Azerbaijan at Eurovision 2012

Last May, Ell & Nikki, an obscure duo from Azerbaijan, won the 2011 Eurovision Song Contest. The country’s President, Ilham Aliyev, treated the musical win like a military triumph, describing it as “a victory for the people of Azerbaijan and the Azerbaijani state.” By winning the pan-European singing contest—which, kitschy as it is, unites the region like little else—Azerbaijan’s capital city, Baku, earned the right to host this year’s show, which will be broadcast to more than 100 million people at the end of May.

Hosting Eurovision is a big deal for Azerbaijan, a sleepy ex–Soviet republic of 9.5 million that sits on the geographic and political outskirts of Europe. So Aliyev entrusted his glamorous wife Mehriban Aliyeva, who is also a member of parliament, to organize the event. She’s overseen an infrastructure upgrade, beautification projects around the city and the rapid construction of the 23,000-seat Baku Crystal Hall, the Eurovision venue that will feature 45,000 LEDs onstage and views of the Caspian Sea. Like an insecure adolescent trying to get the cool kids to come to his party, Baku is sparing no expense on Eurovision. Governments frequently spend around $30 million to host the contest, but Azerbaijan has officially budgeted $64 million, while journalists estimate the real figure is at least $277 million. “We are very proud that we won Eurovision and are honored that we have the chance to host this year,” says Fakhraddin Gurbanov, Azerbaijan’s ambassador to Britain. “It’s not only an advertisement. It’s the introduction of our country to the world.”

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For Azerbaijan, a small country keen to distract the world from its poor human-rights record, Eurovision represents the culmination of a global charm offensive. Although most people would struggle to find it on a map, Azerbaijan has amassed impressive wealth in the 20 years since it obtained independence from the Soviet Union. Its vast oil and gas reserves helped push its real GDP up by 35% in 2006—making it the fastest-growing country in the world for a time. Since then, the economy has nearly tripled, to $62 billion, putting it on par with countries like Oman.

Despite Azerbaijan’s post-Soviet economic success, international critics say the country remains an autocracy with little respect for human rights. Heydar Aliyev, the current President’s father, controlled Soviet Azerbaijan as leader of the Communist Party, beginning in 1969, and assumed the presidency in 1993 after a bloodless coup. He stood down in October 2003, and two weeks later the younger Aliyev won a stacked election in a landslide.

The new President abolished term limits via a widely disputed referendum in 2009. The Human Rights House Foundation described the country’s most recent elections in 2010 as a farce. Azeri citizens who criticize the political elite face reprisal. According to Amnesty International, police beat and imprisoned two musicians after they insulted the President’s mother during their performance at a peaceful protest on March 17. Azeri authorities have ignored dozens of assaults on journalists in recent years, including two murders. According to the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, a human-rights NGO, about 70 people are in jail for political reasons—where many are allegedly tortured. Transparency International ranked Azerbaijan No. 143 out of 183 countries on its most recent Corruption Perceptions Index.

Azerbaijan disputes these charges, claiming the country’s democracy is still developing. Nonetheless, Aliyev is spending good money to ensure that corruption, repression and autocracy aren’t the first words that come to mind when you think about Azerbaijan. According to Budget.az—an Azeri website run by a group of independent economic analysts—the government of Azerbaijan spent at least $38 million promoting the country abroad in 2011. That promotion includes passing out books on Azeri carpets along with Azeri-branded USB drives to delegates at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland; opening Azeri Friendship Parks in Mexico and Bosnia; and erecting a 220-ton, 162-m flagpole in Baku in May 2010. There are also commercials on CNN that show fashionable young women shopping in Baku, and the official Eurovision website now includes a video explaining Nowruz, the Azeri New Year celebration.

Azerbaijan isn’t the only country that spends liberally around the globe to polish its international image. Belarus—which currently faces E.U. sanctions over its human-rights abuses—previously paid the London public relations firm Bell Pottinger to perform advocacy work and image counseling. Kazakhstan, which led the U.S. State Department to express concern over the arbitrary arrests and torture of prisoners, paid the consulting firm BGR Gabara $45,000 a month for “outreach to government officials, news outlets and other individuals in the United States.”

Azerbaijan, though, has been particularly eager to tap the expertise of international p.r. firms. In September 2007, “the Presidency of Azerbaijan” paid Jefferson Waterman International (JWI), a Washington-based political- and business-consulting firm, $25,000 per month plus expenses for “professional services.” That contract has ended, but JWI still represents the International Bank of Azerbaijan—for the same fee—for services that include “consultations with members of the Executive Branch and U.S. Congress.”

In Europe, the particulars of such deals are hazier, but there’s little doubt that Azerbaijan is riding a wave of good press. “Its wealth has encouraged the inter­national community to buy into the myth of a young democracy making slow and steady progress,” says John Dalhuisen, the director of Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia program. Baku has stronger support among politicians across Europe than its Central Asian neighbors do, and the World Economic Forum recently ranked it as the most competitive economy in the region. Last September, the acting U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan praised Baku for sharing “the benefits of oil and gas … throughout society.” According to the World Bank, Azerbaijan has cut poverty from 50% in 2001 to just 7.6% last year.

But Eurovision—and all the international attention it will bring—may change the narrative. “They are moving toward the biggest p.r. disaster in their entire history,” says Emin Milli, an Azeri political activist who was imprisoned for 18 months on charges of hooliganism. “I do so many interviews with the press,” says Milli, who is now a graduate student in London. “It’s like a full-time job now.”

Friends in High Places

Give Azerbaijan’s leaders this much: they’ve got ambition. Besides hosting Eurovision, Azerbaijan is bidding for the 2020 Olympic Games. Last October it won an election to become a temporary member of the U.N. Security Council. And in April developers announced plans to build the world’s tallest skyscraper, tentatively named the Azerbaijan Tower.

But the p.r. blitz isn’t merely about national pride. Azerbaijan hopes respectability will help it secure international funding to build the region’s largest petrochemical complex, which could be worth as much as $15 billion. Baku also hopes to win support in its ongoing conflict with Armenia over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. As part of its campaign, Azerbaijan is working with the London-based Leadership Agency, a firm that helped Russia win its bid for the 2014 Winter Olympics. In a meeting with Time, the agency’s representatives described democracy in Azerbaijan as “a work in progress,” trumpeting the country’s economic growth and commitment to secularism. They also emphasized the country’s growing relationship with Israel as well as the imminent opening of a Four Seasons hotel in Baku—the first in an ex-Soviet republic.

Azerbaijan has aggressively courted foreign politicians and dignitaries. In 2009, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair accepted $143,000 for making a 20-minute speech in Azerbaijan praising the opening of a methanol power plant. State TV broadcast the press conference, and Blair later dined with Aliyev. (Blair’s spokesman said the event was a “one-off speaking engagement” and that the former Prime Minister has no commercial relationship with Aliyev.) Prince Andrew, whom the Azeri media have referred to as “the dear guest,” has visited Azerbaijan at least eight times since 2005. He came under fire in March 2011 for encouraging an MP to boost British business with Azerbaijan. Buckingham Palace defended the Prince’s actions, telling the Guardian that Andrew—then serving as the U.K.’s trade envoy—“tries to identify opportunities for British businesses in overseas markets.” Michael Harris, head of advocacy at the Index on Censorship and author of the report Azerbaijan’s Image Problem, says engaging with the West legitimizes Aliyev at home. “Visits by European politicians are used to convince the people of Azerbaijan that the government is a ‘normal’ European democracy that enjoys good relations with its neighbors,” he says.

Baku also dispatches emissaries to hobnob with politicians in European capitals. According to its own materials, the European Azerbaijan Society (TEAS) exists “to promote Azerbaijan to international audiences,” and Gurbanov, Azerbaijan’s ambassador in London, claims the group “has nothing to do with the government.” But according to U.S. embassy cables released by WikiLeaks, TEAS’s “talking points very much reflect the goals and objectives of the GOAJ [government of Azerbaijan].” Critics have also raised questions about the group’s close relationship with European politicians. Mark Field, a Tory MP and member of the British government’s Intelligence and Security Committee, has accepted two trips to Azerbaijan valued at more than $9,000. TEAS covered all expenses. Field also works as a member of the advisory board of TEAS and has estimated that he received between $8,000 and $16,000 from it over the past year. MPs can pursue outside consultancy work as long as they declare any financial interests, which Field has done. As someone with experience in energy and security, Field says he is keen to “build links between our nations in areas of shared interest.”

It’s true that about 5,000 U.K. nationals now work in Azerbaijan and that Britain is the country’s largest foreign investor. But Field still raised eyebrows in the House of Commons on Oct. 10 when he introduced a parliamentary early day motion celebrating Azerbaijan’s achievements since independence and wished “the country well on its path toward becoming a fully fledged member of the community of European democratic states.” The motion made no mention of the country’s human-rights record. “It’s outrageous that lobbyists should be able to buy access and influence in a way that they are clearly doing,” says Paul Flynn, a Labour MP. For his part, Field tells Time he expressed his concerns about media restrictions in Azerbaijan to the country’s senior ministers. He says economic and diplomatic engagement is the best way to encourage genuine democracy.

Of particular concern to critics of Azerbaijan is its success in recruiting former members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE)—the international body that appoints judges to the European Court of Human Rights. Eduard Lintner, a former member of the German Bundestag, served as chairman of the Parliamentary Assembly’s Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights from 2002 to ’05. He now works for Berlin’s Society for the Promotion of German-Azerbaijani Relations, a lobbying group supported by Azerbaijan. Lintner told Der Spiegel that he resigned from the Council of Europe partly because the body wanted to condemn alleged human-rights violations rather than ushering Azerbaijan “along in a supportive way.”

Gurbanov, Azerbaijan’s ambassador to Britain, stresses that Lintner and other similar officials no longer work for PACE. “They share our vision, and that is why we are in close cooperation with them,” he says. “We definitely need politicians who will support us in international organizations.”

Positive Press

Politicians won’t fill up Baku’s luxury hotels on their own, so Azerbaijan hopes to seduce potential tourists too. It speaks directly to foreigners through journalists, who are drawn to Baku by over-the-top press junkets that p.r. firms hand out like candy. In 2010, during one of the more lavish outings, a group of 10 editors and writers from some of London’s biggest magazines and newspapers flew on a private jet to Baku for the opening of the city’s Chinar nightclub. The three-day tour included free-flowing champagne, chauffeurs, gift bags full of caviar and a special performance by British girl group the Suga­babes. “There was a sense that anything you wanted, you could have,” one journalist says of the trip. “Nothing was off-limits.” Four months after the Chinar trip, the Daily Mail—the most powerful newspaper in Britain—ran an article by one of the travelers with the headline “Amazing Azerbaijan: Baku to the future in the capital city at the very edge of Europe.”

The puffery goes beyond print media. Last November, CNN—which, like Time, is owned by Time Warner—ran a weeklong series of short segments called Eye on Azerbaijan. It looked at the country’s carpets, folk music and cuisine, explaining that Baku “might have an ancient heart, but it is getting a remarkably modern face.” Nothing was reported about the country’s human-rights problems, and Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism paid for advertisements during the broadcasts. A CNN spokesman acknowledges that Eye on Azerbaijan was a sponsored series but says the network retained all editorial control and that CNN aired a story about Amnesty International’s activities in the country as part of a separate news program.

Surely there are limits to how many advertisements a single country can buy—unless, of course, it runs a magazine of its own. That likely explains Baku, a fashion-and-lifestyle magazine launched by Condé Nast in October. Available globally, the magazine portrays Azerbaijan as a modern country in sync with Western values, with lush photo spreads of models and celebrities shot around the country’s landmarks. Edited by Leyla Aliyeva, the President’s London-based daughter, the current issue includes 26 pages on Eurovision—none of which mention that Emin Agalarov, the President’s son-in-law, will perform as a special guest act during the contest’s live broadcast.

The Curtain Rises

Ironically, Eurovision—meant to be Azerbaijan’s coming-out party—could end up undermining the country’s expensively tended image. In recent weeks, newspapers across Europe have reported on allegations by Human Rights Watch that officials have un­lawfully evicted residents and demolished their homes in the area surrounding Baku Crystal Hall, where Eurovision rehearsals will begin on May 13. The European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which oversees Eurovision, and Azeri authorities deny this. “They thought Eurovision was another jewel in this propaganda crown,” says Dalhuisen of Amnesty International. “It’s unraveling for them.”

For Aliyev, that criticism must sting, especially since his government has already bowed to pressure from the EBU to ease some of its more repressive policies during the contest. On April 22 the government sanctioned a protest in Baku—only the second in seven years—during which opposition groups called for Aliyev’s resignation, chanting, “Eurovision without political prisoners.” “Euro­vision is shedding light on the darkness,” says Milli, the activist. “The best way to expose injustice is to come to Azerbaijan and make this the most subversive event in the history of Eurovision.”

How Azerbaijan copes with 30,000 guests—including 1,500 journalists—during the event will prove to be its greatest p.r. test. Even the First Lady knows that. “The European song contest is a big and beautiful holiday for some people but for others an occasion to organize political provocation,” Aliyeva told Azeri reporters. “One must be prepared.”

Opponents might interpret that as a veiled threat. But authorities will likely shy away from cracking down during the contest: international media would beam any images of violence around the world instantly. That would leave Azerbaijan out of tune with Eurovision—a contest founded to unite Europe through song after the carnage of World War II. Literally speaking, contestants don’t always manage to achieve harmony. This year’s acts include an Austrian rap group performing its song “Shake Your Booty” and a Cypriot songstress who is best heard in Auto-Tune. If the ideals of Eurovision rub off on Baku, though, perhaps more Azeris will be able to use their voices one day